North Korea made a fresh threat to close down the Kaesong Industrial Zone and turn it back into a “military zone” if South Korea enforces UN sanctions on items made there. The development came amid tensions that have increased daily following speculation of an imminent North Korean nuclear test.
A North Korean spokesman for the National Economic Cooperation Committee hit back at the South Korean Minister of Unification, who told the National Assembly on February 4 that there needed to be an “effective implementation of the UN resolution on sanctions against the North” and “corresponding payment be imposed upon the banned goods [from the Kaesong Industrial Zone / KIZ].”
The North Korean spokesman said that any attempt to implement sanctions in this way was “as foolish an act as pricking its own eyes” and said the “consequences would be unimaginable.” The spokesman went on to say that,
We hope the KIZ will continue operating in the spirit of the June 15 era of reunification but if someone makes any form of provocation to the KIZ, we will consider it as vicious “sanctions” against us and take such resolute counter-actions as withdrawing all privileges for the KIZ and restoring the area as a military zone.
Despite the rhetoric, a shutdown of the KIZ is ultimately unlikely. Though there have been threats by both sides to close the facility since Lee Myung Bak entered office, the shared economic zone has survived. This is arguably because it still benefits both sides – for the North, it is a valuable source of hard currency; for the South, it provides cheap labor for the large conglomerates (chaebols) that have set up factories there. However, if the North truly feels its sovereignty is threatened by the KIZ remaining open, this time the threat may not be hollow.
On the southern side of the DMZ another statement today making the headlines came from the Chairman of the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said the South would launch a “preemptive” strike on the North in case there were clear signs it was going to use a nuclear weapon.
Despite the striking revelation, the Chairman made clear that there were currently no plans to launch a preemptive strike on the North’s nuclear facilities, though he added, “we may change our mind if the situation changes.” Going on to speculate about the prospects of the DPRK nuclear test, he guessed that the North was going to use a “boosted fission weapon”, in an attempt to work towards making the weapon small enough to fit a nuclear warhead on a missile.
Meanwhile in the diplomatic realm it was reported today that an unknown “top envoy” had been sent by North Korea to China. A source told the JoongAng Ilbo that a “high-ranking envoy from North Korea arrived in Beijing yesterday morning by airplane,” and that “although we haven’t confirmed specific identification of the envoy, we were told he is an official of the ruling Workers’ Party’s international affairs department.”
But while the South Korean diplomatic source suggested the trip had come about to “gauge the level of possible sanctions” following any third nuclear test, it is also possible that the envoy was sent to simply explain the North Korean position rather than take Chinese objections into consideration.
The possible visit by a high-level envoy comes as other reports suggest the North is distancing itself from China and Russia after they voted for additional sanctions at the UN last month
Not only did the North criticize “big countries” for failing to uphold fair global order at the UN, but an editorial posted by North Korea’s Nodong Sinmun today also questioned the double standards of the Security Council, asking why there had been no condemnation of recent Japanese and South Korean rocket launches.
If fears of a third test realize in the coming days or weeks, tensions will dramatically increase on the peninsula and it is likely that the UN Security Council will respond with more tightening of sanctions.
North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests in the past, in 2006 and 2009, but has given no time-frame for its third test.